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Experts say Minnesota has too few school counselors

Students speak to members of the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying April 26, in Rochester, Minn. After two students in southeastern Minnesota committed suicide, in part because they were bullied, school officials raised concerns about the shortage of counselors in schools. ALEX KOLYER | MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL - Minnesota has the second-lowest ratio in the country of school counselors to students, leading some in the profession to contend troubled students are being neglected.

The Minnesota Association of School Counselors says the average ratio of students to counselors in the state is about 800 to 1. Kay Hertling Wahl, a professor of counseling at the University of Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio News that makes it difficult for counselors to be effective in dealing with depression, addiction or bullying in schools.

Suicides by two public school students in southeastern Minnesota this spring called new attention to what advocates say are gaps in mental health services in the state's schools. School counselors are on the front lines, trying to help students to head off problems before a crisis occurs.

But "many students slip through the cracks because the school counselor is too busy," Hertling Wahl said.

At Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning School in St. Paul, counselor Beth Coleman said she's "rarely sitting down." A typical day starts with a morning of reaching students, talking to kids about bullying and anger management. The afternoon is filled with appointments dealing with everything from problems in class to homelessness and family issues. She often meets with parents, too.

Coleman is one of two counselors at the school for pre-kindergarten to 6th grade students and is responsible for about half of its 670 students.

"I try to do my paperwork, but a lot of times, that's done at home at night because I'm too busy during the day talking to people," Coleman said.

Minnesota state law does not require schools to have counselors, social workers or psychologists on staff. Administrators in each school district decide whether to do so. Counselor positions are often the first to be cut when school budgets shrink, since they don't affect class sizes. Dozens of Minnesota school districts have no counselor at all.

In some parts of the state, that's compounded by a shortage of mental health counselors who focus on children and adolescents -- particularly in rural areas. Walter Roberts Jr., a professor of school counseling at Minnesota State University in Mankato, said students needing a therapist often wait three, six or even nine months before they can get an appointment.

"That becomes a lifetime, in and of itself, for a child who is showing signs of, and perhaps maybe experiencing, out-of-the-norm depression," he said.

Peter Jensen, a Mayo Clinic professor of psychiatry, said there should be a stronger focus on making sure existing counselors are well-trained to spot problem students early. He said he's seen some recent improvements to that end in Minnesota schools.

Some districts are starting to collaborate with community agencies to connect students with counselors when needed.